Spiritual home of Ethiopian Christianity
The conventional view is that Axum (also spelt Aksum) is not as interesting as Gondar, but we are not sure. Its star attraction, the Stele Park or royal burial ground, is astonishing, atmospheric and generally a comfortable experience for the visitor with plenty of space to absorb the groups that circulate.
Axum is possibly the longest lived in African city south of the Sahara, and is the spiritual home of Ethiopia’s version of Christianity – ‘Ethiopian Orthodox’. The earliest settlement here, a village on the hill NW of the present city, grew developed over several hundred years into an ancient city by around 400 BC. Not for another 200 years did the royal burial ground evolve. The Stele are stone columns of varying heights but every one stupefyingly heavy. How did they get them to stand upright? Elephants, pullies, artificial earth mounds and hundreds of slaves is probably the answer, but you still can’t quite believe it. Another mystery is the stone coffin of one of the emperors which is hollow but on the face of it completely sealed… so how was the body placed inside?
From around 200 BC onwards Axum was the most important city in the Horn of Africa and capital of the Axumite Empire. This stretched from the banks of Nile in Sudan across the Red Sea and into Saudi Arabia and, significantly, was well connected by trading routes not only into Saudi Arabia and beyond into Europe, but also with parts of western Asia. The connection with Europe opened the way for Christianity becoming the state religion in 4thC AD. The empire declined in the 8thC AD because it became isolated from its trade routes and because of the rise of Islamic power in North Africa and Arabia.
Opposite the Stele Park, and usually visited at the same time, is the Church of Mary Zion – with its successful modern interior and atmosphere of intense devotion. Nearby is the temple that is said to hold the Ark of the Covenant – its roof was leaking when we visited and there were plans to move it to a new building alongside – at night, under complete secrecy, of course. A church alongside the small temple may only be visited by males. At service times echoes to beautiful plainsong chanting.
The Queen of Sheba, who married King Solomon of ancient Israel, is strongly associated with Axum – legend maintains that she ruled a kingdom here that preexisted Axum’s empire. Their son Menelik came back from Israel to inherit her African possessions, and is claimed to be the founding father of the dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for 3,000 years until the assassination in 1975 of Haile Selassie. It describes itself as the Salomonic Dynasty, and adopted the Star of David as one of its emblems. A ten-minute drive from the Stele Park takes you to an impressive outdoor ‘swimming pool’ carved in soft rock said to be where the Queen of Sheba bathed. These sights are what make Axum one of the best places to visit in Ethiopia, not the city itself, which is humdrum.
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